Local heroes?

We're all locavores now - at least, we foodies who slaver to sink our teeth into something soil-fresh, seasonal, preferably harvested only a short stroll from the farmers' market. We get gooey for wild garlic and cultivate 400 ways with asparagus and rhubarb during their transient moments of glory.

Of course, it's easy to think this way in late spring, when each visit to the market brings a new treat (this is a theatre column, honest. Though if anyone wants to swap asparagus recipes, I'm all ears, and stomach). But the depths of winter are a greater challenge: six weeks of parsnips don't hold quite the same appeal.

The point, you'll be relieved to know, is that local sometimes represents the pick of the crop and sometimes a cruel restriction of choice. For example, it's a weary truism that London receives an unjust amount of attention in British arts coverage. Why should all the national press turn out for a play in a minute room above a pub, while neglecting a major production on the regional stage?

The ecology of regional theatre is fascinating. I've visited more theatres out of London in the past few weeks than I have in years: Birmingham, Southampton, Mold and Manchester. It's been bracingly eye-opening: a tiny tasting of the work that is happening around the nation, and a wholly unrepresentative sample, but a couple of things are already becoming clear.

Reviewing for a national paper, the productions I've seen have been mainstream shows in established venues rather than experimental work, but each of these important theatres seems to have a different relationship to its local community. Southampton's Nuffield is on a university campus (though not a university with an arts bias); Birmingham Rep alongside several civic monoliths; Clwyd Theatr Cymru outside town, on top of a hill offering beautiful Welsh scenery. I'm so open to correction here, but of the four venues, only Manchester's Royal Exchange seemed to have much of a buzz beyond showtime. The foyers are tempting, there's art and coffee: when I found myself killing time between shows, it wasn't a problem.

The same wasn't true elsewhere: although the shows themselves were well attended, there was less of a sense of a vital resource, however tempting the programmes on stage. How does a theatre make itself essential, even when the show is so-so? Even when there's no show at all? If you want people to use your building, is an innovative outreach department more or less important than a scrumptious cafe?

Numbers are, inevitably, part of the problem. London gets the attention, not just because so much happens there, but because it has audiences to sustain those happenings. Even a tip-top show in a leading regional theatre (and they don't come tip-topper than Mary Stuart in Mold: God, it's exciting) will only have a three-week run, because there simply isn't the audience to justify a longer span. And of course, if you don't like what your local is showing, you may not have many (any) other choices for performance. Parsnips for week after week, perhaps, and no asparagus in sight.

In Britain, as elsewhere, we're right to worry about theatre beyond the cultural capitals. My ArtsJournal neighbour Laura Collins-Hughes wrote recently about a dismaying narrowing of ambition in her (American) local companies. And on the Guardian theatre blog, the redoubtable Lyn Gardner, among others, has worried over the question. What do you reckon, people? How can regional theatres attract the attention they deserve? And how can they truly matter not just nationally, but locally?

Dept of foolishness: It was Laura Collins-Hughes who noted shrinking ambition in a previously adventurous theatre company. Molly Sheridan, meanwhile, was awed by the glossy elaboration of the Met's subscription brochure. Apologies to both for the muddle.

May 14, 2009 11:17 PM | | Comments (4) |

4 Comments

Tom, I'm sure you're right - it's easy for London to seem the centre of the known universe (as a born-and-bred, it's the centre of mine). And a really good, informed writer with a regional beat can undoubtedly do wonders - the Guardian's Alfred Hickling, for example, covers an impressive amount of territory in the north of England, and writes with zippy intelligence. But although it may not be practical, especially in days of shrinking travel budgets, I still cling to the idea that a national paper should cultivate national critics, who bring all their smarts to performances throughout the country - so that the capital doesn't necessarily hog top billing in arts coverage. (Try to make me actually live elsewhere, though, and you'll have to prise my fingers from the cracked and grotty paving stones. You can only take a Londoner so far.)

I think one of the biggest issues for national arts coverage in the UK is the fact that all the papers are based in London, along with their arts desks.

The Arts Council is relocating their Grants for the Arts office up to Manchester shortly...perhaps the future for the nationals lie in more regional correspondents with touring arts desks or desks located in strategic arts hotspots such as Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh etc.

Gruel, Larry? Eek, and I thought parsnips were as dull as it could get... This is where the food metaphor really breaks down - you can't store up a glut of summer theatrical goodies to see you through the leaner months.

Thanks for giving a far more nuanced view of the theatre scene in any one region than I've been able to see on any of my rapid in-and-out visits. Your Berkshires certainly give ours a run for their money - and it's great that summer, which can be a fallow period in the UK, is the time when the Berkshires come to vivid life.

You're also right to raise the other big question I didn't really touch on, which is the standard of work and expectation. This is one of the reasons I think it's healthy for critics on the national papers to travel nationally (a huge ask in the US, I realise): they can experience so much more and bring that experience to bear on their writing. How much does lack of competition breed complacency in smaller towns? Does a company's work suffer if the artists arren't exposed to a wide range of work? Or, are they more free to experiment and innovate, freed from a template of expectation? Larry, thanks so much for adding to the questions buzzing around this vexed subject.

When you live in the Berkshires of Massachusetts (not the UK) and both Broadway and off-Broadway becken, the siren call is hard to resist. Yet our own home-grown theatre runs the gamut from magnificent to mediocre. There is community theatre, local professional, and regional as well. I make many trips to Boston each season. I am one of several local writers who report it all in our own regional online magazine, BerkshireFireArts.com.

The issue is whether these companies are just renting costumes and learning the lines, or actually taking a fresh approach to old chestnuts. Many of our companies (Wiliamstown and Berkshire Theatre Festivals, Barrington Stage, Shakespeare & Company) actually do new works in workshops, on their second stages, and sometimes even on the main stage itself!

However, the Berkshires are a Summer phenomenon, with the Boston Symphony's Tanglewood attracting classical music fans, and Jacob's Pillow for dance aficionados. There is also Mass MoCA and a vibrant arts scene in the visual arts. Those of us who live here year round see smaller, less fancy productions during the off-season, but are grateful for whatever gruel fills our bowl during the long, nasty winter.

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on May 14, 2009 11:17 PM.

All in the interval was the previous entry in this blog.

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